The silent University

When a university is afraid to set, consolidate and promote journalistic communication of its own, two things may be happening

A university 'speaks' through the lessons given at its schools and institutes – it speaks to its students, who are its direct public, through its teaching staff. But indirectly, the university also speaks to society: an extraordinary lesson can at length become the subject of a talk with family members and with the students' external circles of friends [1]. Thirdly, appraisals and rankings, which theoretically rate the quality of the lessons, also end up by speaking about the university to society.


The university also speaks through scientific articles published by its researchers. Obviously it does not talk directly to society: It is the scientific community affiliated to the university that displays its works, submitting them for testing by the scientific community as a whole. In this case, therefore, the largest audience will comprise mostly other scientists, almost always experts in the same area [2]. Another part (comparatively very small) of the readers of these scientific articles includes science broadcasters, science journalists in search of a subject matter that might yield a topic for a report, an opinion article or a video on YouTube. The most serious and experienced journalists will know how to translate, contextualize, question and spice these technical, complex articles. The shallower and hasty ones will simply make the subject (even more) confusing, and, at best, will "simmer" the text ('simmering' is a journalistic jargon for the less noble activity of rewriting, either well or poorly, works produced by other writers). Even though no one or hardly anyone really becomes aware of scientific papers, any appraisals and rankings which, theoretically, take into serious consideration the amount and impact of scientific production, end up speaking about the university to society, with comments such as 'This university is productive, look how many articles it has issued!', or 'This one publishes hardly anything, I've read that in the ranking of Folha newspaper', etc.).


Likewise, the university speaks when it promotes congresses, symposiums, lectures, workshops, conferences and all types of events on varied sorts of subjects. The university speaks through its lecturers, since the event was promoted with its support, it takes place in the university's premises, it consumes the university's time, the lecturers are either affiliated to the institution or have been invited by professors of the institution; therefore they have been endorsed by the internal staff. Although it is a very indirect speech, it is a way of speaking all the same. Moreover, the audience is very specific: people who are interested or else are forced (poor things!) to attend the events and often times are buried under boring 20-minute long expositions (mixes of poorly used PowerPoint presentations), followed by endless questions, all of this because of the desired participation certificate.


Specifically in the case of Unicamp, the services and assistance it renders may be the key channel through which the university 'speaks' (indirectly) to society. The University Hospital (Hospital de Clínicas) is an example. Millions of people from outside the institution consider that Unicamp is solely … its health area. In this case, the university speaks both through poor service, hospital queues, dirty restrooms and, paradoxically, through excellent nurses, physicians and treatments. The university speaks through art, music, schools, and extension programs [3].


The examples above (which are not all inclusive) represent indirect communication between the university and society. However it must be well understood that lessons, researches, academic meetings, medical assistance, extension, etc. represent the core activities of a good university [4]These are end-activities that evidently involve communication [5]. But they reach specific audiences, the ones that are directly involved. The broader audience is reached only indirectly (if ever).


Then is it possible to imagine a more direct form of communication for universities? Maybe when the university rector speaks by means of an official notice? Or even better: When the top agency of academic representation – its 'parliament', the University Council – issues its views (recorded in a minute, with video of the entire sessions)?


Yes, certainly that is the most direct form of communication between the university and society. However, as it is easy to characterize this type of communication as direct from an institutional point of view, its contents are generally restricted to the internal community, i.e., it is indeed direct communication from the university, but not to society. It is rather direct communication only to the teaching staff, employees and students [6].


On the other hand, when a university speaks via its press office, it is actually giving one step forward. It is providing the communication media (newspapers, radio and TV stations, magazines, and a wide range of information sites) with interesting stories about its researches. 'Please read, listen and see: Thanks to our work, there are significant advances in this or that field that are, or should be, of interest to the general public. Come check and show them to the world! We'll give interviews, offer photos; we'll let you get everything in video.' However, there are limitations: The decision on what will be broadcasted is taken by … the vehicles themselves. And the type of topics that the vehicles select depends on their sensationalistic potential (in the sense of causing sensation, attracting attention, boosting views). For sure, it must be pointed out that it is not always like that. There are still serious people in scientific journalism, people who are really worried to turn what is important into something interesting. But the British physician and writer Ben Goldacre summarized a long time ago the standard, the default, the mean of coverage: wacky topics, scary topics or else topics about supposedly great, glorious, immediate breakthroughs) [7]. In other words: all is wrong, or almost everything is too quick, too shallow and, ultimately, utter misinformation.


But even if everything were perfect (it is not), the so-called large mass media has systematically cut down room for science coverage – the reasons for this drop are matter for other talks. If you doubt it, ask the experienced science journalist Herton Escobar [click here to read the article].


This is the reason why the most important form of communication of a university – the optimal way for the university not to be silent, not to be put aside and considered irrelevant for society– is its own 'official' journalism. The term 'official' is not used here in the sense of publishing on paper or on screen (or in audio and video) only what pleases university 'officers', the academic leading staff, what is pre-approved, what does not upset anyone, and, preferentially, what promotes individual careers in directive positions – that boring well known vanity show, fed with lots of flattery and poor pictures.


The official journalism must be official because it consolidates, roots, 'constitutionalizes', 'officializes' within the University a principle that is simple yet very powerful: if the University is the dwelling of knowledge, of research, of the methodic doubt, of exchange and also of (civil and respectful) clash of ideas, then its communication per excellence is the journalistic one, the communication that questions, that relativizes, that contextualizes and evidences the differences in opinion, with no deterrents or interdictions.


When the university does not speak – not as described above, i.e. in the journalistic style, which is the only manner worthy of a university, the only acceptable, plural and often dissonant voice, characteristic of the university diversity –, there are two possibilities: the university it is either concealing from society the wealth of its intellectual, free life, fearless of the contradictory 'danger', or else it is paralyzed by fear, intolerance and mediocrity (if it is not already dead inside, but late for the funeral).


Ricardo Whiteman Muniz is a journalist (Cásper Líbero, 2004), law graduate (USP, 1993) and master in sociology of religion (Metodista de São Paulo, 2000). He worked in an international NGO (field trips and communication). He also worked at Exame.com (as an economics reporter), at the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper (as a sub-editor for science, health, education and environment) and at G1 portal (as a coordinating editor for sciences and health). He is a co-editor of ComCiência digital magazine (partnership between the Laboratory of Advanced Studies in Journalism of Unicamp and SBPC) and professor of specialization in scientific journalism of Labjor (courses of Communication of Universities and Scientific Journalism Workshop II).


[1] A lesson that spread so successful may have attracted attention of wider circles more for the rhetorical qualities of the professor, for the dynamics added to the lesson by the professor, for being 'funny', because the professor uses a lot of dirty words, or else sings or recites beautiful poems, rather than for the contents alone. A few times the professor may also attract attention because of the contents; maybe the contents themselves become the object of informal spontaneous publication outside the classroom.


[2] However, it must be noted that there are indications that the overwhelming majority of the articles are really read by … almost no one.


[3] In the 'UniversIdade' program, for example, over 1,000 students above 60 years old are enrolled this year.


[4] Reginaldo Moraes recovers the concept of 'multiversity' as proposed by Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California in the early 60': Multiversity has 'several souls, several goals, several masters, several communities or several clienteles'. 'As Jacques Velloso puts it, some Brazilian universities have this approximate profile, gathering a large variety of units and services: libraries, documentation centers, archives and databases (not exclusive for its students), publishers and communication departments (producing books, journals and magazines), museums, theater groups, music and dance groups, symphonic orchestras, chamber orchestras, choirs, art galleries, educational radio and TV stations, film clubs, extension schools, technology transfer offices, psychology clinics, business consultancy and business incubators, application schools (primary and secondary education).' (Reginaldo Carmello Corrêa de Moraes, 'Universidade today – Teaching, research, extension', Educação e Sociedade, vol. 19 n. 63, Campinas, August 1998, accessed on 4 April, 2018).


[5] The communication built in end-activities (which, for sure, involve communication - interaction) is different from the activity of journalistic communication of the university life and its work for society.


[6] There are exceptions: Months ago, Unicamp issued an official note stating its disgust at the forceful presentation of directors of the Federal University of Minas Gerais imposed by the Federal Police. This is the university directly speaking about a topic of interest to society. (In fact, the message was brief but clear: This is not to be done, or it was not a habit to be done, it deviates from the standard of democratic normality. This is the reason for the disgust).


[7] 'Don’t dumb me down', The Guardian, 'Bad science' blog, 8 September, 2005, accessed on 4 April, 2018